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Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 19 - The International Legal Environment

The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention

At the Shanghai meeting, the Americans had proposed a future conference to draft an international drug control treaty that would include the Shanghai resolutions in an expanded and more stringent form. This proposal was contested by the other countries and went nowhere. In the years that followed, however, the U.S. lobbied continually and forcefully around the world for a new conference. Addressing the opium problem directly, publicly and internationally was a way for the U.S. to achieve its domestic control objectives, to put an end to the profitable drug trade dominated by the colonial powers, and to curry favour with the Chinese and thereby improve Sino-American economic relations.[1][16]

Twelve countries agreed to meet at The Hague on 1 December 1911 to draft a treaty.[2][17] Once again, the meeting was chaired by Brent, and Wright led the U.S. delegation. Most states had demanded amendments to the U.S. draft agenda, which focused on stringent control of opium production, manufacture and distribution in Asia. For example, Britain insisted that manufactured drugs such as morphine, heroin, and cocaine be considered. This was an attempt to dilute the opium agenda and deflect attention from Indian opium production. Britain also hoped that a fair treaty would create a level playing field for British pharmaceutical companies to compete with the dominant German synthetic drug industry.[3][18]

Chapters I and II of the 1912 International Opium Convention[4][19] (1912 Hague Convention) dealt with raw and prepared opium. For example, Article 1 required parties to “enact effective laws or regulations for the control of the production and distribution of raw opium” unless such laws were already in place. The Convention also recognized the U.S.-initiated principle of restricting opium use to medical and scientific purposes. Chapter IV was aimed at reducing drug trafficking in China.

Chapter III focused on licensing, manufacturing and distribution controls on synthetic drugs, but Germany ensured that the provisions were weak and vague. Article 10 allowed countries to simply make their “best endeavours” to implement these controls. Furthermore, Germany refused to sign the treaty until it was agreed that all countries would have to ratify[5][20] the Convention before it came into force. This was an effective tactic for delaying control measures as it took almost a decade for all countries to ratify the agreement. Germany did so only because ratification was a condition of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War in 1919.[6][21]  

Wright used the 1912 Hague Convention in his campaign for U.S. domestic legislation, arguing that a federal law was necessary for the U.S. to fulfil its obligations under the Convention. In 1916, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this was not so, but by then the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 had become the first federal drug control law in the U.S.; it would remain a pillar of U.S. drug policy for the next few decades.[7][22]  

The establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 following the First World War provided the international community with a centralized body for the administration of drug control. In 1920, the League created the Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs, commonly known as the Opium Advisory Committee (OAC), the precursor to the United Nations (UN) Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The League Health Committee, forerunner of the UN World Health Organization, was also formed. Administration of the 1912 Hague Convention had originally been the responsibility of the Netherlands, but was transferred to the Opium Control Board (OCB) created by the OAC. Enforcement of the Convention was sporadic as the countries on the OCB were the ones profiting most from the drug trade.[8][23]  

The League began to consider demand-side socio-medical issues such as why individuals use drugs, what constitutes drug abuse, and what social factors affect abuse. However, prohibition and supply-side issues soon regained the ascendancy as preparations began and talks were held, again at the instance of the U.S., for a new treaty in the mid-1920s. In general, the international regime has tended to separate the study of drug-related medical and social problems, including etiological questions, from that of drug control problems.[9][24]



[1][16]  William B. McAllister, (1992) “Conflicts of Interest in the International Drug Control System,” in William O. Walker III, ed., Drug Control Policy: Essays in Historical and Comparative Perspective, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, page 145.

[2][17]  Germany, China, the United States, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Persia [now Iran], Portugal, Russia and Siam [now Thailand].

[3][18]  McAllister (2000), page 32-33; Bruun et al. (1975), page 11-12.

[4][19]  Done 23 January 1912; in force 28 June 1919.

[5][20]  Ratification is the process by which each country enacts national implementing legislation – unless the new international obligations are already met by domestic legislation – and thereby consents to the treaty’s application within its territory.

[6][21]  McAllister (2000), page 36-37; Bruun et al. (1975), page 12; Lowes (1966), page 182-186.

[7][22]  Musto (1999), page 59-63. Since the U.S. Constitution did not allow a direct federal role in criminalizing drug use, Wright designed the Harrison Act as a tax statute; physicians, pharmacists, wholesalers and retailers had to obtain a tax stamp to distribute drugs. The Treasury Department was responsible for enforcing the statute. Thus, the use of drugs was limited through access restrictions. (McAllister (2000), page 35)

[8][23]  McAllister (1992), page 145-146.

[9][24]  McAllister (2000), page 46-50; Lowes (1966), page 188.

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